My mother, Ruth Ballabon, neé Distenfeld, a”h, was born in Lemberg/Lviv, Poland (now Ukraine) in 1940 to a family of Chortkover chassidim – not a great time and place to be born Jewish. When she was just a few months old, her parents desperately sought to save her life by giving her to a Catholic family to hide.
Almost all of my mother’s extended family were murdered in the Holocaust. Miraculously, however, my grandparents made it out alive, having survived the infamous Janowska camp, escaping to the woods, and being hidden by Ukrainian partisans (who delighted in massacring Jews – yet protected my grandparents because he was a doctor and she a nurse, and the partisans were in constant need of medical attention).
My grandfather subsequently ventured back to his hometown to see what might be left of it. At the time, the Russians had taken control of his hometown, but there were still pockets of German soldiers and ongoing skirmishes in the area. My grandfather retrieved a handful of family heirlooms and was also able to bring back my four-and-a-half-year-old mother from the Catholic family that hid her.
This rescue, however, came at a grievous price. My grandfather’s sister – who with blond hair and blue eyes had survived until that point passing as gentile – was discovered and killed by a German soldier while bringing my mother to my grandfather. One of my mother’s earliest memories was of a blond woman being shot by a soldier in front of her eyes.
Another early memory was of utter strangers claiming to be her parents and taking her from the only home she knew. She remembered being brought to her real home and frantically running from room to room desperately seeking a cross or statue of the Virgin Mary to which to pray. Of course she didn’t find one, and my grandfather patiently, lovingly, taught her how to say the Shema. This too, she remembered.
Many survivors chose silence. Not so my grandmother. The stories of her experiences which could easily fill a harrowing – and inspirational – book, were shared by my grandmother every Shabbos and Yom Tov. She told of a privileged, happy life before the war, with R Meir Shapiro – also a follower of the Chortkover Rebbe – a regular guest at their home; of life under the 1939 Soviet occupation; and of the subsequent Nazi invasion, brutality, ghetto, and camp.
She told of their escape from the Nazis, of being hidden and abused by Ukrainians, and of their underground travels to Romania. She spoke about life in Vienna after the war and of arriving in America and living in grinding poverty in Williamsburg while my grandfather recertified as a doctor in his third country and third language.
In 1965, my grandfather died of a heart attack. He was just 52. My grandmother and mother spoke of his irrepressible faith during the war, his remarkable fidelity to halacha under the most unimaginably harsh circumstances, his ardent passion for both Chassidus and Eretz Yisrael, his semi-annual trips to the Chazon Ish to discuss innovative medical shailos, his love of humanity, and his generosity.
My mother’s view of her father as a saintly figure was shared by many. His picture adorned virtually every room in our house. Even decades after his death, when someone who knew him finds out I am his grandson, they insist on recounting how utterly remarkable he was. I’ve heard him called a lamed-vavnik and a malach.
It was not until 2000 – when she was 60 – that my mother discovered the truth. Her father long gone, her brothers living out of New York, she became her mother’s primary caretaker. Her mother was suffering at that point from dementia. In searching through some documents, my mother suddenly came across shattering evidence of her adoption.
I remember well her first call to me, struggling to come to grips with the revelation. She asked whether she should ask her mother to explain, but my advice – and ultimately her own decision – was not to. Partially because my grandmother’s memory and clarity were so compromised by then, but mostly because my grandparents’ decision to treat her entirely as their own was such a remarkable act of love and sacrifice that it might be cruel to reveal that she had learned the secret.
Instead, we discussed it with a couple of the cousins who had survived the war. Of course, they knew. And they knew who her birth parents had been and what became of them. In fact, my grandparents – the ones I knew, the ones who raised my mother – were her aunt and uncle. Her birth mother was my grandmother’s older sister.
My mother’s birthparents – Yehoshua and Miriam Baumoël (or Baumohl) – did indeed hide her with a gentile family, but they were then killed in 1942 in the Sambor ghetto. Yad Vashem testimony given by relatives in Israel in 1956 – relatives we haven’t been able to track down – corroborates what we learned from relatives we do know.
There is much more to my mother’s life – her decades-long career as an educator and administrator for schools serving special needs kids and her even longer marriage with my father, yb”l, Dr. Moshe Ballabon – one that remained every bit as adoring and admiring throughout the decades as it was in their first stage of romance.
As many observed, if they were in the same room together, they were holding hands. And, for more than 55 years – until his knees made climbing the stairs the extra time too painful – my father brought her breakfast in bed every single morning.
Despite her family history, it was impossible for my mother to imagine anyone as evil. And she was oblivious to all those externalities people obsess over today; she simply loved people and people loved her.
At one point in the shiva house there were multiple couples who happened to be shidduchim she had made. A surprised friend remarked, “I didn’t know your mother was a shadchan.” She wasn’t. She just instinctively helped everyone she could in the way it was most needed – and sometimes that was a shidduch.
And she was utterly dedicated to the continuity of her people and her faith. It was not a competition with anyone else’s people or faith; she simply saw her most cherished role as a link in an eternal chain and passed that on to her children.
My mother spoke to us often of “nitzchiyus,” a term that suggests continuity but actually means eternity – eternal life. She passed suddenly on March 15, still vigorous and working and fully functioning until mid-January of this year, but my mother lived to see her most precious dreams fulfilled. She leaves behind generations – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – of dedicated, believing, proud Jews. Yehi Zichrah Boruch.